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Background photo of the beach at Whale Cove was made by Bryce Buchanan in 2004. (Via WikiMedia Commons, cc/by/SA)
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“Could you help me?” Browning asked.
“Well, what do you need?”
“Well, I don’t want to talk over a regular phone. Could you come to the station?”
So McAdams strolled across the street to the Coast Guard station. He found Joe Browning waiting anxiously for him.
“My life savings are in that boat,” he said. “I’ve got a bag of gold and it’s hidden in the air duct vent in the main salon.”
By “a bag of gold,” Browning meant 18 pounds of uncirculated British gold sovereigns. At the time the hoard was worth about $60,000; at mid-2021 gold prices, that would be well over half a million.
McAdams agreed to do what he could to retrieve it for him.
Over the next few days the Coast Guard crews spent a lot of time on the beach trying to get into the boat. Another storm blew in the next day, tore off both masts, and buried most of the boat in the sand. For a couple days the Coasties visited the wreck site at each low tide; but every time they thought they might be able to get to it, a storm would kick up.
Then the phone rang in the Coast Guard station again, and it was a newspaper reporter — almost certainly from the Newport News-Guard, although McAdams doesn’t specify.
“They called me up and said, ‘How come your crew is down there almost every night on that boat? What’s going on?’ I said, ‘Well, the fellow’s got a restaurant in San Diego and a home there and all his papers, his insurance papers and his mortgages, are all on board the boat.’”
Those papers might have been on board the boat, or they might not, as far as McAdams knew; but he also knew that if the newspapers got wind of a giant hoard of gold buried on that boat, there would be trouble.
“I know they would have people down there with bulldozers and dynamite and everything else and shooting everybody up,” McAdams said. “I didn’t know how much gold was there, but he said his life savings.”
Finally the weather cleared and the tide went out. With the help of the Newport Fire Department’s metal cutting saw and dredging pump, they cut a hole in the salon, blasted out the sand, and managed to get in far enough to reach Browning’s life savings.
McAdams took the gold back and stuck it in his safe. Then he sent a message in to his district commanders, came clean to the newspaper people about the “restaurant papers,” and called Browning to come pick up his gold. “I’ll be up in a few days and get it,” Browning told him.
The next day, though, McAdams got a message from the State Department: “Do not give gold back until release.”
McAdams figured they were checking Browning out, making sure he wasn’t a bank robber on the lam. He had, after all, been preparing to leave the country with the money.
Sure enough, just after New Year’s Day, the State Department notified him the gold could be returned to its owner.
“And by God the next day the owner showed up,” McAdams recalled. “We went to the bank. He paid for the deposit box that we had there. We broke it out. ‘Here’s all your coins,’ I said.”
Browning gratefully collected his treasure, signed the receipt, gave McAdams $200 to treat his crew as a thank-you, and hit the road.
Just in time, apparently.
“The next day I got a message from the state department saying, ‘My message so-and-so canceled. Do not, do not give gold back,’” McAdams said.
McAdams replied instantly that it was too late, the gold was gone; and within an hour or so of sending the message, an FBI agent called on the phone from the Bureau’s Salem office.
“I’ll be down in an hour,” the agent said — and he was, too. He covered the 82 miles, which Google Maps estimates takes 93 minutes to travel, in just over an hour, so he must have been flying. McAdams gave him all the receipts and things, and he took them back to Salem.
That was the last McAdams ever heard about it.
So, what was the deal? Was there something sinister about the half-million-dollar bag of gold?
Almost certainly not. For a retired couple embarking on a sailing voyage around the world, deciding to carry all their money as hard British currency may not have been a good idea, but it was certainly an understandable one. Likely the FBI just wanted to check things out, and was late getting its request in to the state department.
But one still has to wonder….